Saturday 13 February 2021

Interview with Margrét Helgadottír

Margrét Helgadottír, editor of the Books of Monsters series, is an old friend of TFF: we have reviewed several of the previous volumes (European, African, Asian, Pacific), and interviewed many of the individual authors and contributors (Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Tihema Baker, Brian Kamaoli Kuwada, Raymond Gates, Iona Winter, Isabel Yap, Yukimi Ogawa, Eve Shi, and Margrét herself), and she wrote about the series for our Making Monsters anthology. The seventh and final volume in the award-winning series, Eurasian Monsters, appeared in December 2020, featuring 17 authors and including seven translated works.

Margrét joins us today to talk a bit about this new anthology, and the series, and monsters.

TFF: Could you tell us a bit about the thinking behind editing a volume of Eurasian Monsters specifically, since it’s a slightly different concept from the other six volumes in the series? Were there gaps in the European and Asian volumes that you designed it to fill?

Margrét Helgadottír: The book embraces the vast region stretching from the Chinese border (but not including China) to eastern parts of Europe. The profile of the book is the same as for the first six volumes, it’s just the geographical area that is different. It’s been challenging since it is actually covering two continents. This is the book in the series I have spent most time on preparing. I was forced to make decisions, and I chose not to include stories from the Asian parts covered in Asian Monsters. I also chose not to include stories from the Baltic, or from the western parts of Balkan, mostly because that would mean including 5-10 more stories, if done properly. There seems to be different definitions of what is Eurasia, but I hope I am forgiven to have included a few stories from eastern Europe, a part neglected in the first monster volume covering Europe. I struggled most with locating authors from Central Eurasia, but I managed to get stories from Georgia and Kazakhstan. I am also proud to have stories from Russian authors from several parts of the huge country, not just Moscow. So all in all, I hope the readers feel they get some glimpses of some of the cultures within this vast region.

TFF: Can you describe the process of commissioning and editing Eurasian Monsters? For instance, did you have a call for submissions, or was everything commissioned or reprints? Did you have to deal with translators, or did you only look at work that was already in English?

MH: I worked with tracking down authors and artists to Eurasian Monsters the same way as for the other monster volumes. These books have been invitation-only anthologies. I had a number of available slots, I wanted a balanced representation—mostly covering as many countries in the region as possible, but also gender, sexuality, indigenous backgrounds etc. So what I did was carefully send out the invitations, only one at the time, building up the table of contents slowly, to make sure the representation became good. For some books I have used 4-5 months before being able to finish the contributor list. Some times I had a story I wanted to publish before contacting the author, but mostly I’ve invited the authors to write a new story within a set of guidelines.

We have had translations in several of the volumes. I have had no other choice than using the translator tools available, just to get a feeling about the author’s voice, and to be able to consider if the story fits the anthology. In Eurasian Monsters I had seven translations by four translators, six stories exclusively for the book. Of these a few reprints but also newly written stories. So that has been challenging because I have not been able to start the editing work until the translation work is done. I have learned a lot, and I do hope the translators feel happy about how the stories turned out.

TFF: Now that you’ve been around the world in eighty monsters, are there any patterns that you have noticed in stories and beliefs about the mythological creatures, or does each region have its own unique kinds of monsters and relationships to them?

MH: It is a difficult question. In general, humans of all times have created stories and myths about beasts, dark creatures, and monsters. You can find traces of them in old texts, architecture, art, in legends and myths, and even in old sea maps. Monster folklore is passed down from generation to generation, and these stories are not just for fun, but often teach a lesson as well, or make sure that curious people stay away from specific areas (like haunted houses). No matter where you are in the world, monsters have been there to take the blame when bad things happen—like shipwrecks or sudden deaths, or they can be a way to explain frightening phenomena like thunder and lightning.

Some monsters are universal. You will always find the shapeshifters, the flesh-eating walking dead and the great monsters of the lakes and sea. But just like the everyday lives of humans are influenced by whether their home is at the coastline, in the desert, in the jungle, or in the mountains—the monsters attracted to these different geographical conditional possibilities are also different. A vampire avoiding the sun might not find it pleasant to stay in the Sahara desert, nor would the hyena shapeshifter thrive in the Arctic either.

It might be a coincidence but I do believe I’ve spotted some regional differences, while editing the monster volumes. To name a few observations: Magic is for instance a strong theme in monster narratives from Africa and South America, though it manifests in slightly different ways. The volume focused on North America has many human-made monsters, or monsters with human-like attributes. The Africa and the Pacific volumes have more beasts, when compared to the other volumes in the series. These two volumes and Eurasia also have a multitude of dark creatures from the wilderness or oceans, or with a connection to natural forces such as thunder storms. In both the Eurasia and Africa volumes several of the stories are concerned with place and origin, about immigration and going home. But Eurasian Monsters feels closer to the feeling of home created in the Asia volume, where it is not so much about the place but more about the family itself and the strong relationships between loved ones—dead, living or absent. The spirits, ghosts and demons create an almost floating atmosphere.

TFF: What about the oral tradition of sharing scary tales? Do you think that an anthology is its natural descendant, or that we are missing out on something?

MH: That is an interesting thought. An themed anthology like this could indeed fill some of the need to share the scary tale by the camp fire, both because short stories are shorter snippets with different author voices, and here you would have voices from different geographical places telling you tales about frightening creatures you’ve never heard about. What you would miss out is the sharing: People like to get scared together. And an anthology is (usually) about the relationship between only the author and the sole reader.

TFF: Could you invent and briefly describe a totally made-up monster that somehow clearly belongs in the Eurasian as opposed to any other volume in the Books of Monsters series?

MH: I was surprised there weren’t that many classical shapeshifters in Eurasian Monsters since so much of this region is vast wilderness, and the winters are cold and long. So I would nominate shapeshifter monsters with jaws, like the big brown bear or the giant grey wolf. But of course all these would also be able to exist in many parts of the Northern world. But if you combined it with the many beliefs in ghosts and spirits, especially house spirits, it could be a quite scary monster who lurked between your kitchen and other dimensions, and between a manlike form and an animalform.

Or even a cranky and bloodthirsty version of the prehistoric gigantic mammoth, maybe trampling people to death or piercing them with its long teeth. This latter is actually an intriguing idea, if you picture it in tunnels and not on the Siberian tundra. According to the great interwebs, there existed a belief among indigenous peoples of Siberia, that the mammoth was a creature that lived underground, burrowing tunnels as it went, and would die if reaching the surface.

TFF: Thanks for joining us, Margrét!

MH: Thanks for having me!

Margrét Helgadottír’s Eurasian Monsters, and the other six volumes in the series, can be found at Fox Spirit Books, links at Margrét’s website, and many other online bookstores and libraries.

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